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The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time

The classics are still the classics, but the canon keeps getting bigger and better

Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time was originally published in 2003, with a slight update in 2012. Over the years, it’s been the most widely read  — and argued over — feature in the history of the magazine (last year, the RS 500 got over 63 million views on the site). But no list is definitive — tastes change, new genres emerge, the history of music keeps being rewritten. So we decided to remake our greatest albums list from scratch. To do so, we received and tabulated Top 50 Albums lists from more than 300 artists, producers, critics, and music-industry figures (from radio programmers to label heads, like Atlantic Records CEO Craig Kallman). The electorate includes Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Billie Eilish; rising artists like H.E.R., Tierra Whack, and Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail; as well as veteran musicians, such as Adam Clayton and the Edge of U2, Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan, Gene Simmons, and Stevie Nicks.

How We Made the List and Who Voted

When we first did the RS 500 in 2003, people were talking about the “death of the album.” The album —and especially the album release — is more relevant than ever. (As in 2003, we allowed votes for compilations and greatest-hits albums, mainly because a well-made compilation can be just as coherent and significant as an LP, because compilations helped shaped music history, and because many hugely important artists recorded their best work before the album had arrived as a prominent format.)

Of course, it could still be argued that embarking on a project like this is increasingly difficult in an era of streaming and fragmented taste. But that was part of what made rebooting the RS 500 fascinating and fun; 86 of the albums on the list are from this century, and 154 are new additions that weren’t on the 2003 or 2012 versions. The classics are still the classics, but the canon keeps getting bigger and better.

Written By

Jonathan Bernstein, Pat Blashill, Jon Blistein, Nathan Brackett, David Browne, Anthony DeCurtis, Matt Diehl, Jon Dolan, Chuck Eddy, Ben Edmonds, Gavin Edwards, Jenny Eliscu, Brenna Ehrlrich, Suzy Exposito, David Fricke, Elisa Gardner, Holly George-Warren, Andy Greene, Kory Grow, Will Hermes, Brian Hiatt, Christian Hoard, Charles Holmes, Mark Kemp, Greg Kot, Elias Leight, Joe Levy, Angie Martoccio, David McGee, Chris Molanphy, Tom Moon, Jason Newman, Rob O’Connor, Park Puterbaugh, Jody Rosen, Austin Scaggs, Karen Schoemer, Bud Scoppa, Claire Shaffer, Rob Sheffield, Hank Shteamer, Brittany Spanos, Rob Tannenbaum, David Thigpen, Simon Vozick-Levinson, Barry Walters, Jonah Weiner

From Rolling Stone US


Tame Impala, ‘Currents’

Aussie studio wiz Kevin Parker found surprising mainstream success with his band’s refined neo-psychedelia, thanks in large part to the danceable ease of songs like the hit “Let It Happen.” Tame Impala’s breakthrough is a modern take on trippy bliss, burying vague intimations of displacement and anxiety under pillows of soft, neon synths and Parker’s twee-Bee Gees falsetto. After Currents, he was getting calls to work with Lady Gaga and Kanye West, and Rihanna was covering one of his songs.


Lynyrd Skynyrd, ‘(Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd)’

Southern-rock icons Lynyrd Skynyrd took their name from their high school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, who tried to make them cut their hair. (He later became a fan.) Skynyrd lived fast, played hard, and went down in a tragic 1977 plane crash. On their debut, Ronnie Van Zant flexes his wiseass drawl in “Gimme Three Steps,” protests racism in “Things Goin’ On,” and honors his mama in “Simple Man.” But the peak is “Free Bird,” nine minutes of dueling guitars from Allen Collins and Gary Rossington — now and forever, the ultimate air-guitar epic.


Charles Mingus, ‘Mingus Ah Um’

Charles Mingus filtered the vibrancy and romance of his hero Duke Ellington’s big-band orchestrations into hard-driving bop, leading his own band through a torrid, gospel inspired rave-up (“Better Git It in Your Soul”), a sly protest song (“Fables of Faubus,” aimed at Arkansas’ segregationist governor), and a mournful elegy (“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” dedicated to tenor great Lester Young). Ah Um is the place to hear why Mingus deserves a place in any survey of America’s greatest composers, regardless of genre.


Rush, ‘Moving Pictures’

On Seventies albums like 2112 and Hemispheres, Rush mastered the high-prog epic. Moving Pictures was the record where they proved they could say as much in four minutes as they previously had in 20. Songs like “Tom Sawyer,” “Limelight,” and the Police-like “Vital Signs” showcased the trio’s superhuman chops in a radio-ready framework, while more adventurous tracks like the Morse code–inspired instrumental “YYZ” and the synth-heavy suite “The Camera Eye” found them tastefully streamlining their wildest ideas. Said Geddy Lee, “We learned it’s not so easy to write something simple.”


Run-DMC, ‘Run-D.M.C.’

The Hollis, Queens, crew kicked off the golden age of hip-hop with their debut — the first great rap album, built to blast out of boomboxes on city streets. “Before us, rap records were corny,” Jam Master Jay said. “Everything was soft. Nobody made no hard-beat records.” Run-DMC changed that with the B-boy bravado of “Sucker MC’s,” the metal guitar of “Rock Box,” and the political realism of “Hard Times.” As they boast, “Just snap your fingers and clap your hands/Our DJ’s better than all these bands.”


Yeah Yeah Yeahs, ‘Fever to Tell’

These New York art-punk brats blew away the doldrums of the early 2000s with a true rock & roll goddess in Karen O. She knew how to work her sneer like a pair of ripped fishnets, trashing any room in sight. Yet the tender ballad “Maps” became a surprise hit, with Karen pleading “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you” over Nick Zinner’s warped guitar fuzz and Brian Chase’s drum thunder. “There’s a lot of loooove in that song,” she said. “But there’s a lot of fear, too.”


Neutral Milk Hotel, ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’

The Louisiana band nearly pulled off an indie-rock Pet Sounds with their second album, leavening low-fi guitar racket and twee folk with circus-y instruments like the singing saw and zanzithophone, as leader Jeff Magnum cut through the irony of the Seinfeld/Pavement era with his heraldic surrealist yammerings about broken homes, Anne Frank, religion, scary sexual awakenings, and other coming-of-age traumas. It’s weird, raw, harrowing stuff; if you think you can’t be moved by a song called “The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3,” hearing is believing.


Green Day, ‘Dookie’

The album that jump-started the Nineties punk-pop revival. The skittish Dookie was recorded in little more than three weeks, and singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong blazed through all the vocals in two days. “Right from getting the drum sound, everything seemed to click,” their A&R man (and Dookie producer) Rob Cavallo marveled. Indeed, “click” is the operative word here, also describing Armstrong’s airtight, three-minute bowshots like “Welcome to Paradise,” “Basket Case,” and the infectious smash “Longview” — which Armstrong described as “cheap self-therapy from watching too much TV.”


Robert Johnson, ‘King of the Delta Blues Singers’

“You want to know how real the blues can get?” Keith Richards asked. “Well, this is it.” The bluesman in question was Robert Johnson, who lived from 1911 to 1938 in the Mississippi Delta, and whose guitar prowess was so great, it inspired stories he had sold his soul to the devil. This 1961 reissue of Johnson’s original 78s was a life-changer for Sixties rockers like Richards and Eric Clapton; the moaning lust of “Terraplane Blues” and the haunted desperation of “Hellhound on My Trail” haven’t aged a minute.


Isaac Hayes, ‘Hot Buttered Soul’

Isaac Hayes demanded Stax Records give him complete artistic control for his second album. What happened next sounded like nothing else in music at the time, an orchestral-soul watershed that forecast R&B’s turn toward symphonic excess and plush introspect. Hayes’ 12-minute Southern-psychedelic version of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David “Walk On By” and his spectacularly tortured 18-minute take on Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” took easy-listening tunes and refashioned them in his own radically laid-back image.


Big Brother and the Holding Company, ‘Cheap Thrills’

After Big Brother’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival made Janis Joplin a star, fans were heatedly expecting a live album from them. But their in-the-red loudness and sloppy performances meant they had to cut their second album in a New York studio, with crowd noise added in later. “We’re just a sloppy group of street freaks,” Joplin said. But these San Francisco acid rockers were the most simpatico band she ever had, especially when their raw racket backs Joplin up on “Piece of My Heart,” perhaps her greatest recording.


The Temptations, ‘Anthology’

Indisputably the greatest black vocal group of the modern era, the Temptations embodied Motown, channeling unique individual voices and talents into pristine hits and tight, tuxedoed choreography. This three-album set features masterpiece after masterpiece of chugging, gospel-tinged soul, including “My Girl,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” and “I Wish It Would Rain,” and later, psychedelic-soul adventures like “Cloud Nine” and the gritty message-song masterpiece “Ball of Confusion.”


Lil Wayne, ‘Tha Carter II’

On Tha Carter II, Lil Wayne anointed himself the “best rapper alive,” and drove himself insane trying to make good on his declaration. He demolishes the same beat three ways (“Fly In,” “Carter II,” “Fly Out”), like a Michelin-starred chef using every part of the animal, and drops 106 & Park jams (“Fireman,” “Shooter”) with ease. “I deserve the throne,” he raps on “Hustler Musik.” “And if the kid ain’t right, then let me die on this song.” Two years later, Wayne was alive and well, and the throne was firmly secured.


Mobb Deep, ‘The Infamous’

“We were just straight hood,” Havoc said. “It wasn’t no pretty boy shit. He was talking about the Timberlands and bandanas he and Prodigy (R.I.P.) wore, but that was also the brutal appeal of their second album, which the duo produced mostly by themselves. Q Tip functioned as an executive producer, adding depth to sinister tracks built off of 1970s samples, many of them from the LP collection that Prodigy’s jazz-musician grandfather left to him. “Shook Ones Pt. II,” a minor hit, and “Survival of the Fittest” have only one impetus, to document life in a Queens project.


George Harrison, ‘All Things Must Pass’

After the end of the Beatles, the Quiet One suddenly looked like the one best prepared for the solo life. After years of writing in the shadow of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, George Harrison had enough songs saved up to make his solo debut a triple album, featuring friends like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Ringo Starr. All Things Must Pass is full of spiritual guitar quests like “Isn’t It a Pity” and “My Sweet Lord,” the first Number One hit to include a Hare Krishna chant.


Drake, ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’

Just when everyone was ready for more pop sensitivity from Drake, he went street. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was a mixtape for his rap base — no radio hits or catchy hooks, just his harshest beats and rhymes. It sums up Drake’s willingness to switch lanes at any moment. (Just a few months later, he swerved back into soft-soul territory on “Hotline Bling.”) He spends his money and curses his enemies in paranoid bangers like “10 Bands.”


Aerosmith, ‘Rocks’

The bad boys from Boston perfected their Seventies guitar raunch on Rocks — it’s the musical equivalent of getting run over by a muscle car. Steven Tyler and Joe Perry sounded like America’s heirs to the Mick-and-Keith tradition with the filthy riffs of “Lick and a Promise” and “Back in the Saddle.” Tyler brings all his dirtbag swagger and gutter poetry to his favorite topic: sex. Surprise peak: “Sick as a Dog,” an incredible fusion of the Byrds, James Brown funk, and Sixties girl-group harmonies.


Madvillain, ‘Madvillainy’

This collaboration between rapper MF Doom and producer Madlib is one of underground hip-hop’s greatest moments. Madlib provides a shifting bed of warped funk and wildly unpredictable samples, drawing on everything from Thunder and Lightning’s “Bumpin’ Bus Stop” to “The Theme of the Justice League of America.” Doom’s rhymes are so casually adventurous that sometimes it takes a second to notice how stunning they are: “Still back in the game like Jack LaLanne/Think you know the name, don’t rack your brain/On a fast track to half sane” — hell yeah!


Talking Heads, ‘More Songs About Buildings and Food’

For their second record, Talking Heads found the ideal producer in Brian Eno: Their trilogy of albums with him made the band’s reputation. David Byrne splutters over the twitchy rhythms of “Artists Only” and “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” while crooning “The Big Country” as a ballad about feeling lost in America. The Heads cover Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” a Memphis R&B hit just a year old at the time that they make feel like some kind of ancient prayer.


Parliament, ‘The Mothership Connection’

George Clinton leads his Detroit crew of “extraterrestrial brothers” through a visionary album of science-fiction funk on jams like “Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication” and “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker).” It’s a concept album inspired by Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Clinton as an outer-space radio DJ, broadcasting uncut funk from “the Chocolate Milky Way” and telling the people of Earth, “Put a glide in your stride and a dip in your hip, and come on up to the Mothership.”


Luther Vandross, ‘Never Too Much’

In the Seventies, Luther Vandross sang backup for Sister Sledge and Roberta Flack and co-wrote David Bowie’s “Fascination.” As a solo artist, he embodied sophisticated soul in the post-disco era. His debut LP shows off a dazzling range that came almost too easily — from the title track, one of the defining dance-funk hits of the Eighties, to his stunning rendition of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David classic “A House Is Not a Home,” which made the song uncoverable for future generations of singers.


My Chemical Romance, ‘The Black Parade’

Just as the Who did with Tommy, or Pink Floyd with The Wall, New Jersey act My Chemical Romance served up an era-defining rock opera, tailored for the golden age of emo. Frontman Gerard Way — the goth millennial answer to David Bowie — stars as a cancer patient who marches boldly into the afterlife (“The Black Parade”), where Liza Minelli, of all people, awaits him for a smashing horror-punk duet (“Mama”).


Funkadelic, ‘One Nation Under a Groove’

George Clinton led two of the 1970s’ wildest bands: Funkadelic for rock guitars, Parliament for dance beats. But this album sums up his whole P-Funk empire, as Clinton spreads the gospel of mind-altering, loose-booty rhythms for the body and brain. “One Nation Under a Groove” is a call to arms, demanding “the funk, the whole funk, and nothing but the funk.” Another song asks, “Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?!” It’s the same message Uncle Jam has always preached: Free your mind and your ass will follow.


Big Star, ‘Radio City’

Alex Chilton and his band of Memphis misfits were years ahead of their time — when they released Radio City in 1974, hardly anyone heard it. But like the Velvet Underground, they became hugely influential when future generations discovered them and got their minds blown. Big Star came up with their own skewed pop sound, filtering their love of the Beatles through their Memphis-soul roots. “September Gurls” and “Life Is White” should have been hits, soaring with the sweetly eccentric guitar chime and the romantic ache in Chilton’s voice.


Sonic Youth, ‘Goo’

With their sixth full album, the New York art-of-noise band made the leap from indie to major label, but few sold out so beautifully. From Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s frazzled guitar freakouts to Kim Gordon’s ghostly ode to Karen Carpenter, Goo retained all of Sonic Youth’s quirks and hallmarks. The sessions were technologically fraught, but they used those added production dollars to amp up their sonic assault. On tracks like “Kool Thing” and “Disappearer” they’d never sounded burlier — and yet more true to their alt-nation selves.


Tom Waits, ‘Rain Dogs’

“I like weird, ludicrous things,” Tom Waits once said. That understatement plays out most clearly on Rain Dogs, his finest portrait of the tragic kingdom of the streets. Self-producing his music for the first time and recording in his native Los Angeles, he went for a sound he described as “kind of an interaction between Appalachia and Nigeria.” Waits abandoned his signature grungy minimalism on the gorgeous “Downtown Train” (later a hit for Rod Stewart) and gets backing by Keith Richards on “Big Black Mariah.”


Dr. John, ‘Gris-Gris’

Mac Rebennack was a New Orleans piano player on songs for Professor Longhair and Frankie Ford who moved to L.A. in the Sixties, where he played on Phil Spector sessions and encountered California psychedelia. Rechristening himself Dr. John Creaux the Night Tripper, he made this swamp-funk classic. Gris-Gris blends New Orleans R&B, voodoo chants, and chemical inspiration. The groovy Afro-Caribbean percussion and creaky sound effects aren’t just otherworldly — they seem to come from several other worlds all at once.


Black Sabbath, ‘Black Sabbath’

Recorded in a single 12-hour blurt by a hippie-leaning former blues band, this lumbering debut conjures up a new, sludgy sound: the birth pains of heavy metal. The slide guitar on “Wizard” and the grungy boogie of “Wicked World” would influence not only future metal spawn but even the sound of Nirvana. The album’s most vivid nightmare is the six-minute “Black Sabbath,” which even scared the band itself. “We always wanted to go heavier than any other band,” said bassist Geezer Butler.


X-Ray Spex, ‘Germfree Adolescents’

Teenage multiracial London girl Poly Styrene had braces on her teeth and wore Day-Glo rags, screeching anthems like “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” over saxophone blasts, and chanting, “I am a poseur and I don’t care! I like to make people stare!” X-Ray Spex’s explosive punk-rock debut went criminally unreleased in the U.S., but it became a word-of-mouth cult classic throughout the indie-rock underground in the Eighties and Nineties, influencing Sleater-Kinney, the Beastie Boys, and many others.


The Cars, ‘The Cars’

“We used to joke that the first album should be called The Cars’ Greatest Hits,” said guitarist Elliot Easton. Their debut was arty and punchy enough to be part of Boston’s New Wave scene, and yet so catchy that nearly every track (“My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Just What I Needed”) landed on the radio. When Ric Ocasek died in 2019, Eason offered a fitting tribute: “If the goal was to have great success making pop music with a sense of irony, then mission accomplished, right?”


Eminem, ‘The Slim Shady LP’

On which Eminem introduced himself as a crazy white geek, the “class-clown freshman/Dressed like Les Nessman.” Hip-hop had never heard anything like Em’s brain-damaged rhymes on this Dr. Dre-produced album, which earned Em respect, fortune, fame, and a lawsuit from his mom. Yet, while he claimed that God sent him here to piss off the world, his most endearing quality was that he saved his most unsparing rhymes for the worst villain in his messed-up life — not mom or his ex-wife, but himself.


Roxy Music, ‘For Your Pleasure’

Keyboardist Brian Eno’s last album with Roxy Music is the pop equivalent of Ultrasuede: highly stylish, abstract-leaning art rock. The collision of Eno’s and singer Bryan Ferry’s clashing visions gives Pleasure a wild, tense charm — especially on the driving “Editions of You” and “Do the Strand.” The album’s deeply weird centerpiece is “In Every Dream Home a Heartache”: Ferry sings a seductive ballad to an inflatable doll (“I blew up your body, but you blew my mind”), one of the creepiest love songs of all time.